Hi every one,
I am Anton Van Den Abbeele, I normally graduate this year in 2022 in a master’s degree in international politics. I had the opportunity to live, study and work in Washington DC from January 2022 to May 2022. This through ‘The Washington Center’ a non-profit organization that offers internships and studies to students from all over the world. Below I give my experiences regarding my internship in the USA.
I first heard about ‘The Washington Center’ at the faculty information session on Erasmus. This internship was only briefly mentioned because it is only for top students and is not easy to get into. However, I would like to qualify this, as access to a grant from the Flemish government for this program is not easy, but it is not impossible. Your grades must be good and you must be motivated. Which is not illogical because you receive a large amount through the grant, around 10,000 euros. A small side note, the 10,000 euros goes exclusively to the costs of the program and your apartment, which you will receive from the Washington Center, money for your flight and life there, you have to arrange yourself. I had good grades during my undergrad, but you certainly don’t have to be the best in your year to have a chance at this scholarship. You can participate in the selection for both your third bachelor’s degree or your master’s year. You can attend both the first and second semester. The internship lasts about 3-4 months. I chose to participate in the selection because I was always interested in America and wanted to improve my English. By constantly having to speak English, I have been able to improve my speaking skills tremendously.
What is true is that the whole procedure takes some time. You must first be accepted by the Flemish government, then by the Washington Center and then you must still have your visa in order. Due to the strict US law, this is sometimes stressful. But this makes the reward once you get to Washington DC all the more beautiful.
Washington is a very nice city. Relatively small compared to nearby cities like New York and Philadelphia, but very pleasant. There is extensive public transport Metro/tram/bus and due to the small scale everything can be done by bike or scooter. You can explore the city perfectly via a cheap bike sharing system. In addition, a relatively safe city, as in European cities, can best avoid certain neighborhoods, but in fact 90% of the city is very safe. DC is the exception in many ways in America: strict gun laws (for example, there are no gun shops or shooting ranges), strict corona measures, etc… There are many festivals: Mardi Gras (a kind of carnival), Saint Patrick’s Day, Cherry Blossom Festival, Chinese new Year. In addition, sports are also very important in America and therefore also in DC: ice hockey, basketball, football, baseball, there is something for everyone, and at those sporting events, in my opinion, you see the real American culture. The American National Anthem is sung loudly by everyone who eats and drinks in gigantic quantities, the attention given to veterans and the huge amount of commercials. Georgetown, the well-known university is also located in DC and you should definitely visit it to see the beautiful architecture and experience the atmosphere of an American campus. Of course, you have the endless American monuments on the mall, the many beautiful (and free) museums, and the many political buildings. Think of the White House, Congress, the IMF, etc…
Also, the good thing about Washington DC is that it is close to other lovely places on the East Coast. New York and Philadelphia are just a bus ride from Washington. For example, I went to New York with a few other Belgians for a long weekend, next to the famous monuments, journalist Björn Soenens invited us for a cup of coffee in Brooklyn. Alexandria and Annapolis are two beautiful harbor towns easily accessible from DC where you can eat seafood and take beautiful walks. For nature lovers, there is also Shenandoa, a beautiful national park relatively close by, and those who want to see crocodiles can spend a weekend in North Carolina.
The program itself consists of three parts. First, you work (unpaid) 4-5 days a week in a US company, government agency or NGO. It is very important that you make a good choice in this and choose something that suits you. I had to do mainly academic research and after a while it became very monotonous. Other Belgians also had varying degrees of success with their internships, some very interesting (with the army, with lobby groups), others less successful. Secondly, you have evening classes one night a week, there is a very wide range of subjects: politics, law, media, etc… You have to do a number of tasks for this: presentation, paper and/or exam. In my opinion, the level is not higher than in Belgium, so it can definitely be done. Third, do a dozen workshops. These vary in quality in my opinion. I learned a lot about using Linked in, attending lobby sessions, learning how to apply for jobs, etc. The yoga workshops were less for me.
Finally, I would like to talk about the home and the people. You sleep in an apartment with 3-4 people. In principle you can share the apartment with people of the opposite sex, but in reality most apartments were separated between men and women. You share a bedroom and bathroom with one person. Before the program starts, you can choose someone who suits you through a kind of matching system. I had the chance to be assigned to another Belgian. At first I thought I would speak a little English because of that, but after a week we were speaking English to each other. You then share the kitchen and living room with two other people. The apartments are a bit outdated and not really that big. There is an extensive fitness center in the building, a large terrace and a large lobby. Due to the differences (sometimes also cultural) about e.g. temperature, cleaning and noise, there were already discussions. But I think living with strangers also teaches you a lot, and the opportunity to live with people from the other side of the world is a very valuable experience. In the program there are about 70% Americans and then 30% from around the world (mainly South Americans, Europeans and people from Asia). I thought there would be more international people, but the presence of many Americans leads to many opportunities. They know the cultural do’s and don’ts, know good cafes and restaurants and can help you with specific problems. Making friends with some Americans often allowed me to ride with them to events and trips outside of DC, which was very convenient. American youth are generally very friendly and open, they will invite you to do things quickly, this was a very positive surprise for me. There were also quite a few Belgians (about ten). Although I didn’t really look this up at first, it’s handy to have a few people who can help you with problems and concerns in your own language. By getting to know them, get to know even more people, such as their roommates, and you can expand your network. I would like to point out that these are not cheap 3-4 months. Sure, you choose how much food you order, eat, and how many trips you take, but life is more expensive in America. Especially healthy food and alcohol are extremely expensive compared to Belgium. Other things are cheaper: electronics, clothes, etc. Try to have a big enough budget, there can always be unexpected expenses. If you watch your pennies, it’s definitely affordable on a smaller budget. America is a country where you are constantly given the incentive to spend money, and in many things it is worth the money.
I hope I have convinced you about this opportunity, it is a wonderful opportunity to live in America and make lifelong friends both in America and around the world.
Finally, I would like to thank Ghent University, the Flemish Government and the Washington Center for this opportunity. I will cherish that for the rest of my life. Those interested in this internship can contact me via email or social media if they have any questions, I’m happy to help!
Anton Van Den Abbeele